Before Our Lady J was writing on the groundbreaking trans television shows Transparent and Pose, she was breaking ground at Carnegie Hall. She’s a pianist, a songwriter, a storyteller, and after years of focusing on screenwriting, she’s returned to live performance with two shows at Joe’s Pub in New York.
We’re in a challenging moment right now for trans television. Many of the issues that spurred the dual Hollywood strikes have been especially difficult for trans artists and trans stories. A decade since Laverne Cox appeared on Orange is the New Black, the promise of inclusive storytelling on streaming has faded. That this is coinciding with a rise in anti-trans legislation and public hate is doubly alarming.
But Our Lady J isn’t going anywhere. She’s already back to work even as she finds a different possibility of self-expression through music and theatre. Throughout our conversation I felt hope.
Being a trans artist isn’t getting easier — especially in Hollywood — but she reminded me that it’s never been easy. And yet, we keep pushing. And yet, we keep creating.
Drew: I like to start most of my first-time interviews from the beginning. Where’d you grow up and what was that experience like for you?
Our Lady J: I grew up in a very loving family of evangelical Christian hillbillies. The culture of Appalachia is rich with soulful music and a yearning to express. And that’s really where I found my footing as an artist. I was playing piano for the worship services and every time I played people would say, “Give the glory to God,” and shake my hand real firm.
It was all so loaded because this was during the time of the AIDS crisis and the sermons were filled with homophobia. There wasn’t really a recognition of trans people at the time but I identified with the queer community from a young age without even realizing it. I felt like I was living between two worlds at that moment, but music gave me the ability to transcend. I was a very feminine child and I was horribly bullied in school, but the moment I played the piano everyone was quiet. I knew I could create this space through art.
I started playing piano when I was four but I didn’t start taking it seriously until I was six.
Drew: (laughs) Oh yes at the late age of six you finally decided to really dedicate yourself.
Our Lady J: It’s time to learn about Bach now. (laughs)
There was this piano teacher in the town next to mine who taught me for $4 a lesson. My parents bought a piano at an auction for $100. My grandfather went to auctions any time — it sounds dark and twisted but I swear he had the best intentions — any time a piano teacher in the area passed away to buy all the sheet music. And that’s how I was able to create. Given my financial restraints, it really was a community effort to take care of me and to take care of my artistry.
When I see communities that have such a bias about some things and so much love about other things, I try to hold space for both. I think it’s important to acknowledge the depth and dimension of our existence within community. If I only focused on the negative I would be ignoring the gift of music and the gift of art that I have today. That was the beginning of my artistry and the beginning of me finding a voice within music, television, film, and media.
Drew: Did you move directly to New York from Appalachia?
Our Lady J: I did not. Among the many people who helped me with music was my piano teacher. I grew up in southern Pennsylvania right near the border of Maryland and it’s also really close to West Virginia. This piano teacher lived in West Virginia and he would come up to a community school in the town next to my town to teach. He helped me apply to get a scholarship at this boarding school for the arts called Interlochen Academy in Michigan. Thank God for that.
I left the week I turned sixteen and suddenly I was surrounded by queers and hippies and rainbows and mohawks. It was the 90s so it was a great time culturally. Alanis Morrisette was our Olivia Rodrigo. It was cool to rebel. And I desperately needed to rebel. So Interlochen gave me the space to find a whole other palette to play within my music and my art.
Drew: Did you continue to visit home a lot or did you create a deeper separation between those worlds?
Our Lady J: Financially it was difficult to visit home. I had never flown on a plane before then and most people in my family hadn’t flown at that time. Those plane tickets were very valued and they were used sparsely. But I tried to get home as much as I could and that continued in my further studies.
I went to college in Texas because of a scholarship. Unfortunately, discovered a lot of homophobia and ended up dropping out and moving to New York.
Drew: What was it like when you first moved to New York?
Our Lady J: It was the summer of 2000. I moved the day before I turned 22 because I thought 22 was way too old to not be living in New York City. (laughs)
Our Lady J: I had saved up for a deposit on an apartment and my room was a closet of a studio in the East Village. It was literally a loft in a closet where the bed was on top and my clothes were underneath. The East Village was not what it is today. It was still a bit dangerous in Alphabet City at night but it was filled with art and seekers and folks who were anti-establishment. The punk scene had died by then but there was still this excitement about New York pre-9/11. It felt like it was a great place to express myself and be living as an artist.
Drew: I feel like for any 22 year old it feels that way no matter how much some people will be like, ugh New York is dead.
Our Lady J: (laughs)
Drew: I remember when I first moved there at 18, I was reading the Patti Smith book Just Kids and was romanticizing that era. And then there’s this section where they’re like, ugh we missed it, Warhol’s Factory is dying out, New York is over.
Our Lady J: It is what you make it, right? Those folks created the scene that they were in. And we were creating our scene as well. I’ll never forget I performed a Chopin piece at CBGB. And on the bill was Lisa Jackson, Jayne County, and Justin Tranter. It ended up being this incredibly queer, trans night. We didn’t know how special it really was until many years later. Lisa is an incredible singer-songwriter and is writing a musical right now. Justin has obviously written every hit pop song in the world. Jayne County has gone down in history as an iconic trans trailblazer in the music scene. So it’s always there but we have to make it for ourselves.
Drew: Yeah, I love that.
Can you talk about Jean Genet? What was it about his work and specifically Our Lady of the Flowers that led you to choose it as your namesake?
Our Lady J: So 9/11 happened and it traumatized me more than I was willing to admit I was rehearsing in Times Square at the time for a national tour of a Broadway musical. Being so young and only a year and two months into living in New York, I didn’t want the dream of New York to die. But it did wound New York and it wounded me in ways that I wasn’t willing to acknowledge. Instead I started drinking a lot more and started partying a lot more. I was dissociating a lot. I’d done these things in college to dissociate, but now it got worse. It came to a point where I was living in an abandoned building in Brooklyn on a mattress on the floor. Playing Carnegie Hall by the way.
Our Lady J: I looked around and I thought, oh my God what happened to my life? And so I got sober. I did it through the help of a lot of other sober folks who walked me through what it would be like to live a life of being present.
When you first get sober you read a lot. (laughs) Reading is very good when you’re sober! And someone else who was sober gave me the book Our Lady of the Flowers. To be honest, I haven’t read it since then, but I remember it opening up a world in literature that I hadn’t seen before. It’s about a group of queer folks from the 1940s in France who were struggling to survive much in the way that I felt I was struggling to survive. You know, it’s a 400-hundred page poem that Genet wrote in prison. He was a serial criminal. He didn’t know how to survive in the outside world so he found comfort in committing petty crimes and going to prison. And I felt that queerness had been criminalized in so many ways.
When I was living in Texas, sodomy was illegal and there was a case about a couple who was arrested for having sex. Consensual adult sex between two men was illegal.
Drew: Was that Lawrence v. Texas?
Our Lady J: I remember reading about it in the local newspapers and being very afraid. The same thing is happening right now with transness. There’s this stigma being attached and it’s being used by politicians to gain power while hurting a lot of people. I read that in Genet’s work at the time. It spoke to me. These characters were very messy and often downright terrible. They weren’t rootable. But they were there. And it was more than I had ever seen before. It allowed me to find a sense of freedom that there was community out there. And then I came out as trans. The book itself wasn’t an awakening for me, but it was an acknowledgment of an existence. And I found my awakening through reading many other books — Hiding My Candy by The Lady Chablis, She’s Not There by Jenny Boylan. I began to discover my own transness through literature.
Drew: Well, when I was first coming out your album Picture of a Man was a real comfort to me. For people who know you primarily from your screenwriting work, I’d love for you to talk about the experience making that album and how it came to be.
Our Lady J: When I moved to New York, I was a rehearsal pianist for a theatre. I was also a class accompanist for ballet schools and a rehearsal pianist for ballet companies. And as I began to transition, I noticed, especially in theatre, there was a real confusion about what I was doing. There wasn’t an acknowledgment of transness in the public consciousness. A lot of people had never heard of it and they certainly didn’t have the language.
I would show up to class or rehearsal wearing what I felt was me just being free, and people thought it was performance. They thought it was drag. I remember people saying, you don’t have to wear that. I believed they were good people but they just didn’t understand what I was doing. I found myself having to educate a lot. I was tired, they were tired, everyone was tired, and then the phones stopped ringing. You don’t get fired as a freelance musician — you just don’t get called back. The same with Hollywood, really. You rarely get fired but the phone stops ringing. And I knew I had to do something to support myself because I hadn’t equipped myself with any other life skills except art. (laughs)
Our Lady J: The calls that did come through were from other queer artists who needed a music director or an accompanist. They never paid well — if they paid at all — but it was a community. And that was when I started putting on shows. I realized that I could do two things at once: I could continue making music and I could educate the folks who wanted to understand me. The goal all along was to do those two things. Through that I ended up touring the world quite a bit and having some success.
Picture of a Man was a manifestation of everything I could put together. I look at it now and it seems like such a small piece of work because of the jobs I had to do at the same time. I still managed to play for ballet companies and I had to show up at 8:30 in the morning at Marymount University and I would finish my class at 9:00pm at Ballet Academy East. I didn’t have much time to make the art I wanted to make but eventually I did and that’s what the album became.
Drew: I’d love to talk about your screenwriting work. When you got hired on Transparent, what was your relationship to screenwriting?
Our Lady J: I stopped watching television when I got sober. I felt like there was so much homophobia on TV at that time and I just couldn’t stomach it. But then around 2012/2013, I started watching TV again. I had never really considered that as an avenue. I was very interested in making film, but I hadn’t considered TV.
And then right before I met Joey Soloway, I noticed people were responding to the dialogue between the music in my shows even more than the music itself. I was talking to Whitney Cummings actually about what it would look like if I did a standup routine and tried something new. I was writing all this material for my shows and also memoir material when I met Joey. They asked me if I had anything they could see, so I put it all into a short story and sent it to them.
Actually, that’s an inaccurate way of saying it. When the Transparent pilot came out, I said to Joey, “I will do whatever it takes to work on this show.” And then Joey said, “Do you have any work I can see?” I just thought the pilot was so brilliant!
They were making the first season and talking to other writers. There was this very public search for trans screenwriters. It wasn’t a contest exactly, but a hundred trans folks submitted short stories. That made it a mixed bag. To get the news that I was going to be hired was incredible and life-changing, but to know that it was just one show and I was just one writer felt a little bit isolating. The competition of Hollywood is not baked into what we aspire to as a community. Community is about taking care of each other and bringing other people in and Hollywood tends to be the opposite. It’s me first and how am I going to make it to the finish line. There were a lot of emotions I was having at the time, but mostly I was just happy to be employed and to be around such a great group of incredible writers in that room. I learned so much.
Drew: What was the best experience you had working on that show?
Our Lady J: Oh there were so many things. There was the glitz and the glam! That certainly was fun for a femme like me. The flashes of the photography. Everything you hear about Hollywood. We were decorated with a lot of awards. And that was intoxicating. It didn’t fill my soul but it was intoxicating.
The things that filled my soul were the conversations we got to have in the writers room. Really connecting with other writers. I realized how similar television writing is to playing in an orchestra.
Drew: Oh interesting.
Our Lady J: It’s chamber music. You seek out harmony and if something is off you pause and investigate and then you begin again. There has to be a reduction of ego to work in episodic television both in writing and directing. You have to learn to follow the showrunner. You have to mimic the voice of the showrunner and not just mimic but really fit in and inhabit their voice so it all feels cohesive. With Transparent, it was really important for us all to have the same voice. And there was a real concerted effort to make sure we were all heard. That was the highlight.
Drew: Now I want to ask the opposite question.
Our Lady J: Oh lord.
Drew: Not getting into the scrapped season five, but during seasons two through four, what was the biggest challenge? Was it that isolation of being the only trans person in the writers room?
Our Lady J: I don’t think so, because there were so many trans people on set. We had trans producers, Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst who are incredible human beings and very good at what they do. We had Silas Howard directing. Rhys also directed. So there were other trans folks around. And the cast, of course, as well. Alexandra Billings, Trace, so many. So I didn’t feel isolated. But I certainly felt pressured. From the outside community.
That was the most difficult part for me. It was being able to hear criticism, to not take it personally, and to also do my best to be open to that criticism. To say, what can I do to make this better for the show and the community? And to also know when I’ve given it my all and to say, okay that’s as good as it’s going to get.
Perfectionism is such a little demon for any writer and any artist. And in our community there’s this idea that we have to all be perfect activists. Or that we even have to be activists period! I had never considered myself to be an activist. I considered myself to be an artist and if that changed the world then great. If not, I hope I’ve made something beautiful, and at the end of the day something beautiful does change the world. I feel like in our community we talk about activism more than art and there’s a focus on perfectionism that holds us back. It makes us feel like everything we say has to be perfect and immutable and cemented throughout time. Rather than navigating an ever-changing world and an ever-changing conversation. So that was the hard part: navigating the perfectionism from within our community, which I later realized was about navigating my own perfectionism.
Drew: That balance you’re talking about is so tricky. I think it’s easy to do one of two extremes. Either to try and achieve that perfectionism which isn’t possible. Or to shut all the critique out completely and that’s also not great.
Our Lady J: Yes.
Drew: I think that balance is hard for any artist but especially an artist with a marginalized identity that has expectations from their community or communities that range from understandable to unfair.
Our Lady J: It can be very stressful.
Drew: I’d love to ask the same two questions about Pose. What was the best part about working on it and what was the biggest challenge?
Our Lady J: The best part was knowing that we could go even further than Transparent was able to go. Everything that we see in art and media has been built on something else. Transparent was built on Queer as Folk and The L Word and I felt like Pose was the next stepping stone from that. To go into a place with even more trans folks involved and an awareness that we were going to try and do the right thing in all ways possible. It felt like I could breathe even more. I could see my words on the page changing. I had already written two HIV positive trans women on Transparent and being positive myself I was eager and excited to put all of this into Pose. Yes, my life experience but also the experience of so many others who hadn’t had that voice yet. Being able to write about HIV/AIDS within the trans experience on a show that was allowing me to be — and encouraging me to be — honest was incredible.
Drew: And the biggest challenge?
Our Lady J: Hmm. Well, one challenge that I found when writing about characters living with HIV/AIDS in the 80s was that our audience didn’t understand that life. Our audience was much younger and they didn’t come up with the same stigma. That’s good, obviously, but they also weren’t raised with the same toughening of skin.
When people died from complications from AIDS, it wasn’t talked about or it was only whispered about and all of those things that were unsaid created this immense grief on everyone who survived. It was a scar that we all live with. And that scar allowed us a toughening in the face of death, in the face of violence and discrimination. The tools that we acquired from facing that day to day are quite different from the tools that this current generation has. I don’t feel like we were able to be as honest about how terrible it was and how much loss there was, because people didn’t like it when the characters died. They felt like we were punishing the audience rather than historically showing what happened. There’s this sense that queer art has to always be uplifting and always positive and we tried to do that with Pose. I’m glad we had it as our north star to give people something to aspire to. But knowing that the younger generation isn’t as interested in understanding what that grief was like was hard on a personal level.
But they shouldn’t have to know. Nobody should have to know that kind of grief. And I’m glad that they don’t know that kind of grief. Unfortunately, it’s coming and it’s coming from this new direction, this wave of anti-trans legislation, and so they’re going to have to learn that type of grief in order to survive this. And I want to remind anyone who is reading this that it is possible to survive. There is a richness in our history that we can call upon to learn how to survive.
Drew: I think about that a lot. For me, my queerness is so tied to history and so tied to understanding who came before. I think that has to do with my interest in the arts and if you’re interested in not just contemporary art but where that contemporary art was born from you inherently learn history.
But it also depends on what kind of media people are watching. There was obviously so much great queer art being made during the AIDS crisis but it wasn’t the stuff that was winning Oscars. It’s not Philadelphia. It’s Marlon Riggs and Derek Jarman. It’s much better and much more real. I just saw Chocolate Babies for the first time because it was restored and at Outfest this year. I hadn’t seen it before and was blown away.
Our Lady J: Chocolate Babies by Stephen Winter absolutely. There was also Diamanda Galas, David Wojnarowicz. There was so much great art to come out of it. And I think that’s the thing that’s going to save us now. I don’t think social media is going to save us. Even activism I think can be hijacked by other players who do not always mean us well. Activism can just be a series of words that are said and repeated. We need to really listen to those who have the soul in their message, because otherwise it becomes corporate activism. It’s just reposting and there’s no meaning behind it. And that encourages complacency. You feel like you’ve done something when you haven’t done anything at all. Don’t get me started, I could go on about this all day. (laughs)
Drew: (laughs) Okay well then instead let’s talk about the shows you’re doing right now at Joe’s Pub. Do you see them as a return to a different kind of creative expression? What are you able to do in these shows that you’re not able to do in screenwriting?
Our Lady J: I have to thank the strike for allowing me to create all this material. I had four projects that I was working on and I had to put them on pause. Thank God the strike is now over for the writers and I’m back to work as we’re still advocating SAG-AFTRA. We’re walking right alongside them in the pickets hoping that they reach an agreement soon.
In those months I wasn’t allowed to work on my film and TV projects but I had my music. It’s always been something I’ve done in the breaks between seasons. But the more I get into TV and the more work I have there, the less music I create. So this really allowed me the chance to reunite with music. I wrote a musical — or at least the first act of a musical, the second act is partially written — and I’m talking to some theatre companies about that. And I wrote all these little songs.
They’re kind of like diary entries or entries into a Mean Girls burn book. I think metaphor gets us so much further than anything literal because that’s how we find the soul in what we’re doing. That’s how we detect whether something is honest or not. In art, if something speaks to you and you don’t understand why, that’s an honesty you’re detecting. To be able to remove myself from something as literal as two characters speaking in a scene, I was able to go back to metaphor and really explore what I wanted to say. And a lot of it ended up being very light and comedic. These shows I’m doing at Joe’s Pub — and also I have a show on December 7th at the Wallace Theatre in Los Angeles — are a mixture of the original songs that I wrote during the strike and also me doing sit-down comedy at a piano bench. It’s Sandra Bernhard-inspired, surreal comedy. It’s absurd, it’s dry, it’s sarcastic.
I feel like there’s a lot of trans comedy coming up that’s a result of us losing so much. Respectability politics are becoming less of a tool and our anger and our frustration and our joy is coming out through absurdity and being completely irreverent. I’m leaning into all of that. All the terrible jokes that I tell my friends in private, I’m now telling in public.
Drew: That’s a thrilling little tease.
Our Lady J: (laughs)
Drew: You mentioned writing a musical. What are your biggest dreams in terms of music and performing work specifically?
Our Lady J: If someone would just say here’s a ticket to write Broadway musicals for the rest of your life, I would say, absolutely sign me up. I would be so happy. I love working in theatre. Theatre folks are a whole other breed of artist. The community is amazing. In March I moved back to New York and I’m now doing the bicoastal thing. I’ll be in LA when I’m working in production there but I’ll be in New York otherwise. The theatre community here is just so incredible. Because there’s not that much money in theatre, you really have to love it. But I also need to make a living! So it’s the balance of figuring out how I can bring what I love about theatre into film and television. How can I bring that honesty and that boldness? The dream is to marry them all together.
I’d love to do more live performance as well. I’m doing a couple guest spots at Caleb Hearon’s shows in Brooklyn. I love him. We’re working on a TV project together. Collaborating with other live performers is the dream always. It’s a muscle that I have to keep in shape. This was the first show I’d done in four years and I slept for three days after. I was so tired.
Drew: Wow that’s a long gap.
Our Lady J: It is. But I want to keep it going. So that’s the goal right now: to keep it going and to follow the openings that the world has for me. That’s always been the plan as an artist. If one door is not opening and you’ve tried everything you can do, you have to look around and see what other doors are open.
Drew: I do think we’re in a moment right now where more doors are closing in film and TV for trans people. There was this really exciting boom for queer and trans TV, but now a lot of those shows have been canceled and new ones aren’t getting produced at the same rate. Do you feel disillusioned by Hollywood? What’s bringing you back?
Our Lady J: Well, I look at the things that I’ve survived in my life. Surviving an HIV diagnosis, immediately followed with an AIDS diagnosis. Being told that my body is not going to make it. Having to get sober. Having to build my life from nothing. Coming from a small rural village and having to make my way as an artist. Being harassed to the point where I couldn’t study and had to go out in the world without a degree. All these things combined. Hollywood is nothing compared to that. It’s a walk in the park and I have to remind myself of that. Those life experiences prepared me for the difficulties that lie within Hollywood.
It’s easy to get lost in the madness of it all, but I have to remind myself what I’m here for. I remember that I am here to be an artist, to create, to not get caught up in the drama. There will always be drama in every workplace that we’re in if we focus on that. But I learned survival from being face to face with death. That’s not something you can learn in a course and it’s not something that you can read in a book. And so I listen to that more than I listen to anything else. I stay close to my humanity by staying close with people in my community.
It can be disillusioning but only if I take my eye off of the goal and the goal for me is to stay in the room and to survive and to get these stories out there. I know it’s going to be better for me to be in these rooms than for me to not be in these rooms. So I just stay focused on the work.
Our Lady J is performing at Joe’s Pub in NYC tomorrow night and at The Wallis Theater in LA on December 7th.